Yolanda Joe pulled out a deck of Bid Whist cards from her pocketbook as she and three fans settled in at a shaded table near the pool. A Bahamian sunset splashed the sky. The band played reggae, a couple of people danced, and the cruise ship rocked gently while Joe and her fans sipped fruit drinks and bluffed their way through another friendly game of cards.
No one was pressed or harried. The balmy Bahamian breezes seemed to blow away all worries. And any separations that existed in everyday life between authors and their readers, well, those blew away, too. On board Carnival Cruise Lines' MS Fantasy, during the first Black Literary Authors Cruise Konnection, lovers of literature shared suntan lotion and stories--and a rare opportunity to spend a few days together with nothing to do but relax and talk books.
Pam Harrison of Charlotte, an Internet professional and voracious reader and collector of books by black authors, decided to organize the literary-themed cruise last year, after being angered when a bookstore clerk didn't know who J. California Cooper was.
"He said, 'We don't have that book. She must be a new author,' " Harrison recalled.
Since Harrison had been reading the popular black author for nearly a decade, she started thinking about the commercial and marketplace difficulties faced by both black authors and the people who read them. That led her to dream about a way to help bring the groups together. And that led her to create the B.L.A.C.K. event, a five-day voyage--to the Bahamas, almost incidentally--featuring 10 black authors and a roster of readings, lectures and get-togethers.
With no advertising, Harrison attracted 178 book lovers, nearly all of them women, for the mid-September trip, doling out from $488 for an inside twin/king cabin to $858 for a suite. A Carnival spokeswoman said the regular rates on the same cruise ran from $344 to $1,229. Book clubs came as groups and individuals came alone or with friends, some from as far as Alaska. From just a Web site, a blurb in Essence magazine and references to the event on other Web sites, plus word-of-mouth, readers of black literature heard about the event. Harrison now hopes to offer a black literary cruise at least once a year.
"It was the combination of the cruise plus the authors" that attracted Sherry Woodard, 43, of Detroit. "I haven't cruised in a long time, and I was very interested in meeting authors. I like to talk to them and find out where they get their inspiration. I'm a pseudo writer. I just don't get the time to do it."
Other shipmates didn't care about the islands at all. They came only for the literary offerings.
"I've been to Freeport and Nassau, so that wasn't a draw for me," said Wanda Jones, 35, of Plainfield, N.J., who came solo. "It was all these authors being in one place at the same time."
"Black authors never make it to my bookstore, so I had to come to them," said Donna Bozeman, manager of a Waldenbooks in Anchorage.
While 2,200 passengers and 900 crew members were aboard the Fantasy, the book lovers on board for the literary cruise became a small community, seeing each other at events as well as in the casino and restaurants, where they mingled with the other passengers who were just aboard for the usual cruise experience.
Theme cruises such as Harrison's have been around a long time and cater to many interests, according to Jennifer de la Cruz, spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines. Anyone who books at least eight cabins can arrange a theme cruise, she says, with an activity program separate from the rest of the ship. "Generally speaking, these are people who aren't as interested in the ports of call as they are in the theme," she said. "We host all kinds of theme groups--country and western, bingo, Richard Simmons's Cruise to Lose and Super Bowl parties."
For her virgin literary voyage, Harrison recruited a wide range of creative talent: R.M. Johnson, author of the novel "The Harris Men," fresh from his first book tour; Victoria Christopher Murray, author of the Christian novel "Temptation"; Eric Jerome Dickey, author most recently of the novel "Cheaters"; supernatural fantasy author Tananarive Due, who wrote "My Soul to Keep," and her husband and fellow sci-fi writer, Steven Barnes, a screenwriter and author of "Iron Shadows"; Yolanda Joe, author of three novels, most recently, "BeBe's by Golly Wow"; Lolita Files, author of the novel "Getting to the Good Part," a sequel to her first novel; Omar Tyree, whose most recent fiction offering, "Sweet St. Louis," has just been published; and Colin Channer, author of the novel "Waiting in Vain," who missed the cruise because of botched flight connections. (I was No. 10, author of the autobiographical "Laughing in the Dark.")
A game room was headquarters for those passengers registered for the literary program. Here they picked up name tags, which would allow them to enter the literary events. They could also buy the authors' books there and have them autographed after readings or other events.
At the cruise's inaugural reading, Harris stood before a crowd of about 75 people in the game room, dressed in Bermuda shorts, a "North Carolina Lacrosse" T-shirt and sandals. The lull of his voice blended with the rhythm of the boat, and the members of the audience were transfixed, breaking their concentration only to take an occasional photo.
Dickey's reading was at 8 a.m. in the Cat's Lounge, so readers were invited to attend in "respectable" pajamas and to eat breakfast as they listened. Some attendees arrived dressed in satin pajamas, matching robes and mules. Others came in the white Carnival robes they'd found in their staterooms and whatever shoes they could find. As Dickey read and talked about the wonders and woes of being a writer, the audience ate yogurt, croissants and sweet rolls and drank coffee, tea and juice.
"For four years I was rejected by every agent and every publishing company," said Dickey, a former engineer/comedian/substitute teacher who kept his fans laughing with his quick delivery.
Revenge has been sweet. Dickey has had four books published since 1994.
What readers received throughout the cruise was a dose of each literary personality. The sassiness and earthiness of "old school" girl Yolanda Joe, who mesmerized with stories about her grandmother. The pizazz of Lolita Files, who went from being a young corporate executive to become a best-selling author. The humorous, spiritual presentation by Valerie Christopher Murray, who self-published her book and sold 10,000 copies before attracting the attention of a publishing company. The hipness of Omar Tyree, who captures in words the street cadence and desperation of young people in the hard, urban life.
For us authors, the cruise was, of course, an opportunity to boost royalties and to meet the people who buy our books. (Not to mention the chance of a free cruise.) But also important for artists who work in solitude, it was a chance to fraternize with fellow writers, people who understand the loneliness and vulnerability of practicing the craft.
There was a hitch on this first literary cruise, but it had nothing to do with literature. Harrison, a quality assurance engineer for a company on the Web, chose mid-September because that's when cruise rates are lower. "I swear," she said, "I didn't know anything about it being hurricane season."
The Fantasy left Port Canaveral, Fla., just as Hurricane Floyd was headed toward the Bahamas. Though we made it to Freeport, weather prohibited the ship from spending its scheduled full day there. We were in port just four hours, barely long enough for us to hunt for bargains at the nearby markets and hustle back to the ship. The next day, instead of stopping in Nassau, the ship docked in Key West, Fla. After that, it was time to head back to Port Canaveral.
The ship's detour didn't faze most of the 178 people on board for the literary cruise since most of them hadn't come to see the islands; they had come to see and hear the authors. While other passengers may have grown weary of the Fantasy's offerings on this redirected cruise (even with the multitude of activities, restaurants, clubs and shows), the literary cruise folks had more than enough to do: cocktail parties, readings, signings and opportunities to snap pictures and have theirs taken with their favorite wordsmiths.
Dickey could be seen in the fitness room each morning. On any given night, most of the writers could be spotted dancing at one of the clubs. One "official" large group photo was taken of all the authors and the readers on and around the wide staircase at the ship's center. And, of course, Yolanda Joe set up Bid Whist games with any willing readers she could find. She seldom had to search very hard for participants, and a regular card game crew developed.
Meantime, Harrison has even bigger plans for next year's cruise, hoping to offer 15 authors and fill the entire 1,200-passenger Tropicale; the ship, which will visit the Cayman Islands, will depart Aug. 12 and return five days later. And word has spread that Harrison is looking for authors to appear on next year's program.
"I've gotten some pretty weird manuscripts," she says with a laugh, "including one from a man who sent his self-published book featuring a cover of him nude."
For information on the August 2000 B.L.A.C.K. cruise, check out www.blackcruise.com or call 704-540-9316. Theme cruises can be organized by special groups, such as the B.L.A.C.K. organization or even travel agencies, or by the cruise lines themselves. For info on how to find existing themed voyages, or help in creating your own group sailing, start by contacting a travel agent who specializes in cruises.
Patrice Gaines is a reporter for The Post's Metro staff.